"Safe From Harm" (1/4)
by Maya Tawi
"Tell us what it is, dangerous
Friends and enemies, I find it's contagious
And they're spreading through your system like a virus
Yes, the trouble, in the end it makes you anxious"
--Massive Attack, "Safe From Harm"
The woman in Exam Room 2 was visibly nervous, smoothing her stylish skirt over her thighs and crossing and re-crossing her legs. Her first words were, "Can we do this quickly? I don't have much time."
Dr. Gregory House blinked at her, turned, and started back toward the door.
The woman's voice rose an octave or two. "Where are you going?"
"To fetch someone," House said over his shoulder, "who cares less about whatever disease you may have than your own personal timetable. Don't worry, this hospital is full of extremely busy doctors. I'm sure I'll find one who can sympathize."
"No, don't-- please!" She sounded near panic. "I'm sorry, I don't-- Take all the time you need. I mean, of course you will. It's just-- he--"
House stopped with one hand on the doorknob.
In a low voice, she said, "My husband doesn't like me to be gone long."
Great. House rolled his eyes, then took a deep breath and slowly turned around.
"Shirley Knowles," he pronounced, glancing at the chart, then back at the patient. She looked young for her age-- 36-- and supremely arranged, the way that only old money could look. "Fever, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting. Traveled recently? Gone camping? Eaten at any fast-food chains?"
"I-- my husband and I were in Mexico last week," she offered after a moment. "He had a business trip."
"And he took his wife along? Brave man." House pressed gently against her abdomen, noting her discomfort. No hard masses, nothing that seemed out of place. "Bacterial gastroenteritis. Next time, don't drink the water."
"Then stay the hell out of Mexico. On general principle." He scribbled quickly on a prescription pad. "Ciprofloxacin, one a day for five days. Come back if you don't get better and we'll try again."
Shirley Knowles looked startled. "What-- that's it?"
"Well, gee," House said. "If you've got time to kill, we could go get a bite to eat, maybe see a movie. I certainly have nothing better to do."
She flushed. "You don't have to be rude."
"It's a hobby, not a requirement. And anyway, I was serious." House glanced at his watch; just over an hour left of clinic duty. "Come on, we'll call it patient therapy. I play my cards right, I might even get paid for the time."
Shirley Knowles stood with great dignity, gathering her coat and purse. "I have to go."
With amusement, House realized that she thought he was hitting on her. Well, he'd been accused of worse.
"Right," was all he said. "Wouldn't want to keep your husband waiting."
She swept past him, and he called after her, "Mrs. Knowles."
Her shoulders stiffened.
"Drugs," House said simply.
She turned to him, looking blank, and then her gaze fell on the prescription still in his outstretched hand.
"Call me!" he called after her, as she strode out, prescription tucked safely in her purse. He waited just a beat too long before adding, "If the symptoms come back, I mean."
A less well-bred woman, he was sure, would have flipped him off.
Why Shirley Knowles had driven over fifty miles from her hometown to visit a free clinic, when she could clearly afford the best, was a mystery that House briefly noted and then filed away in the back of his brain. It was all down to the husband, he was sure, and the only reason he hadn't asked her was that he really didn't want to hear about it. If the man would begrudge his wife the time she needed to get treatment for a potentially fatal disease, he certainly wasn't worth wasting any spare brain cells on.
He expounded on this particular theme at considerable length in the hospital cafeteria, at which point Wilson said very reasonably, "Then why are you ranting about it now?"
"Because the depth of human stupidity," House said, "never ceases to amaze me." He popped his last Vicodin and peered into the empty bottle. "Whoops, all gone. May I please have seconds, Daddy?"
Wilson shook his head. "And here I thought you didn't care about your patients. The clinic patients especially."
"I don't care about her," House said. "She's not the one being an idiot. Except for the part where she is, because she's still with him."
"Oh, right," Wilson said. "Abused women are so weak-willed. It's a character flaw."
"She didn't have any bruises."
"That's not the only form of abuse, and you know it."
"Yeah? Well, I'm rubber and you're glue and I am so incredibly bored." House scowled at his half-eaten sandwich. "Why don't you ever take me someplace fun?"
"Because you're impossible to take out in public," Wilson said mildly. "I'd have to dig up the choke chain and the muzzle, and I think they got lost in the move."
"You remember what happened the last time we went to a movie theater, of course. What was it-- '98, '99?"
"I'll have to check the ticket when I get home. I'm sure I pinned it up right next to my prom corsage."
"The only reason you didn't get your ass handed to you was because those men were too polite to beat up a cripple. Which, by the way, one of these days you're going to piss off somebody who isn't."
"Which you've been saying for years now, and it hasn't happened yet. I may have to reconsider my rosy opinion of human nature. Besides, it was a crappy movie." House popped the last of his sandwich in his mouth and pointed at the half-eaten pickle on Wilson's plate. "Are you going to finish that?" he mumbled around the food.
Wilson looked gratifyingly disgusted at the display. He blinked. "You hate pickles."
House swallowed with a mighty effort; years of dry-swallowing Vicodin made the movement almost instinctual. "Was that a yes or a no?"
"Why the sudden interest in my pickle?"
Wilson refused to be baited. "Go ahead if you're finished. I'm not on duty for another half hour."
House glared at him.
Wilson looked first at House, then at the empty pill bottle on the table, and comprehension visibly dawned. He frowned and said, "You just took one."
"Yes," House said testily, "and in far too few hours I'll have to take another one. And--" he glanced at his watch-- "that annoying pharmacist just started her shift."
"The one who won't let you fill your own prescription?"
"No, the one who won't let me grab her rack. What do you think?"
"I think it should probably surprise me more than it does that you've memorized the shift rotation in the pharmacy."
"Yes, well," House said, "I think you were clinically insane when you bought those shoes. Are you going to eat the damn pickle or not?" He knew he was being testier than usual, testier than the situation warranted even from him, but for Christ's (or someone's) sake, James ought to know by now not to question the rate at which he went through his pills. He was looking at House like-- like Foreman did.
It was annoying as hell.
He held Wilson's gaze, narrowing his eyes in challenge, and eventually Wilson sighed and gave up, like he always did. "Fine," he said, and stood. "I'm done."
House stood too, with considerably less grace. "Good doctor. You get a biscuit."
"You won't even let me have a pickle."
"You can have all the pickles you want approximately five minutes from now. I'll buy you a goddamn pickle."
"And they say romance is dead," Wilson said, pitching both his and House's napkins and sandwich wrappers into the trash can and following him to the elevator.
"Too bad your wife never buys you pickles."
"Julie buys me plenty of pickles."
"Too bad your wife doesn't buy your shoes. She couldn't possibly have worse taste than you do."
"Of course not," Wilson said, his voice criminally dry. "Julie has impeccable taste."
House recognized a deliberate conversational ender when he heard one and, for some reason he was reluctant to identify, elected not to press the point for once. Instead, he whistled tunelessly all the way to the clinic and tried not to think about Shirley Knowles and her husband, who weren't worth the effort. Tried to ignore the part of his brain that was busy fitting pieces together and wasn't satisfied with the final picture.
Maybe he'd check in with Cameron. See if she had any real cases for him.
Five days later, after a case of suspected meningitis turned out to be an intracranial abscess, the abscess was excised, and the patient was placed on a prolonged antibiotics course, House finally had time to breathe again. He left Chase and Cameron monitoring the patient's vitals and retreated to his office.
Someone was waiting for him.
House cast a quick eye over the man, mentally reviewing his clinic patients from the past week and coming up blank. If he wasn't about to get sued again, he wasn't interested.
"Go away," he said, unlocking his office door.
The man ignored him, following him into the office, and House turned to him with a peeved expression. "What part of 'go away' don't you understand?"
"Dr. House?" The man sounded dubious.
"Congratulations. You can read." House laid his cane on his desk and opened the top drawer, frowning at the mess within. Now where had he left--
"Doctor, my wife saw you in the clinic last week with-- ah--" He paused, then said delicately, "Stomach trouble. Shirley Knowles. I need the records of that visit."
"No," House said, as he continued to rummage. "Go away."
To his credit, the man barely missed a beat. "She's switched doctors, and the new one needs her medical records. I thought maybe we could cut through some red tape, you could just give them to me."
House gave him a long, flat stare, noting the man's confidence, his outthrust chin and expectant look. This was a man used to getting his own way. House was familiar with the condition.
He turned back to the mess in the drawer and said, "Your request is patently ridiculous, and while I would love to spend the next two hours explaining to you in exhaustive detail just why that is, I happen to be in the midst of a crisis at the moment, so--" Just then, his fingers finally found the portable television hidden beneath a pile of crumpled receipts, and he grasped it in triumph. "Ah. Crisis averted. Are you still here?"
This time, the man sounded less sure of himself. "Dr. House, my wife is very ill. She's not in her right mind--"
"Really? Has her tummy trouble gone to her brain? There could be a paper in this." He waited exactly two seconds for the answer he knew wouldn't come, and then slammed the drawer shut and fixed the man with a penetrating look. "Okay. Let me spell this out for you. You have absolutely no legal right to the Knowles woman's file, a fact of which you are obviously very much aware. Even if you were her husband, which I highly doubt is the case, and even if she were mentally incapacitated, which I also doubt, that would not change the essential facts of the case. I can't help you. Get out."
"I don't--" the man sputtered. "I don't know who you think-- of course I am--"
"You're not wearing a wedding ring," House recited, closing his eyes in irritation. "Granted, not every married man does, and you're certainly enough of a bastard to be the esteemed Mr. Knowles. But given the shoddy quality of the suit you're wearing, or rather the suit that's wearing you, as well as the fact that you are actually wearing a polyester tie, I'm dubious of the veracity of your claim." He paused. "In other words: Liar, liar, pants on fire. Care to tell me why you're so interested in that file?"
"No? What a surprise." He sat down, propping his bad leg up on the desk, and flicked on the small TV. "Go away, I'm busy."
He didn't look up as the man left, but he wasn't paying attention to the tiny doctors onscreen, either. His mind was racing. And when he heard the door close after the fake Mr. Knowles, he rested his chin on his hand and murmured, "Interesting."
During the commercial break, he unearthed Shirley Knowles's file and slipped it inside his briefcase.
Some light reading with dinner might be nice. There wasn't anything interesting on TV that night anyway.
"Differential diagnosis," House said the next morning, as he strode with some effort across the conference room to the whiteboard. He started scribbling as he spoke. "Fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain. Assume gastroenteritis is off the table. What else?"
He turned around and waited. His team was still paused in the midst of whatever they'd been doing before he'd walked in. Chase held the coffee pot in one hand and a mug in the other; Cameron was making notes on a file in front of her; Foreman was leaning across the table towards her, caught in mid-conversation.
"Well?" House demanded, when no immediate answers were forthcoming. "I'm waiting."
"Good morning to you, too," Foreman muttered.
House scowled at him. "Do I look like I'm having a good morning?"
"No," Chase said, after a moment's consideration.
"How can you tell?" he heard Cameron murmur.
House rolled his eyes. "Can we stop discussing me now? Fascinating as the subject may be--"
"Giardiasis," Chase piped up.
House shot him a look. Chase sipped his coffee and cocked one eyebrow over the rim of his mug.
"Good one," House acknowledged, and wrote it down. "Next?"
"IBD," Cameron said, and Chase added, "Dysentery."
House glanced at the silent Foreman as he wrote. Foreman still looked annoyed.
"Appendicitis," Cameron said, after a moment.
"No rigidity, and no specific RLQ tenderness." House paused. "Though that's not necessarily conclusive."
"So why don't you run a CT scan?"
"He speaks!" House exclaimed, and Foreman glared at him.
"Who's the patient?" Cameron was writing again. "I'll order the CT--"
"As it happens," House said, "the subject of this particular discussion is no longer a patient at this hospital."
Cameron's pen froze.
"So what's the point?" Foreman demanded.
House looked at him in surprise. "Indulging my curiosity, of course. Can you think of a better reason?"
Foreman snorted. Quietly.
"Oh, come on," House scoffed. "Like you lot have anything better to do than sit by the bedside of--" He paused and gestured vaguely.
"Parker," Chase supplied.
Cameron began, "She's responding well to--"
"Yes, yes, happy bluebirds, frabjous day," House cut in, tapping the marker impatiently against the whiteboard. "I'm moving on now. Who's with me?"
Chase raised his hand a little.
House gave Chase his own version of the eyebrow-cock. "I wasn't actually asking for a headcount."
Chase just shrugged and put his hand down.
Foreman made a disgusted sound and pushed his chair back. "I'm going to go check on Parker," he said, standing. "Page me if we get any real cases."
"Say hi to him for me!" House called after him.
Foreman waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder.
"Her," Cameron murmured.
"I knew that."
He had just turned back to the whiteboard when the door opened and Wilson poked his head in. "Have you been to your office yet?"
"And a good morning to you, too," House chirped, far too pleased when Chase choked on his coffee.
Wilson just gave him a strange look. "Yeah. Whatever. Have you seen it?"
House frowned. "No, I just foolishly assumed it would still be where I left it. Is it missing? Should we put out a bulletin?"
"You'd better come look," Wilson said, and ducked out again.
Curiosity piqued, House followed.
The place was ransacked.
"They weren't sure at first if it was actually a break-in," Wilson said from behind him, "given your general state of disarray. But they figured you probably wouldn't have broken your own lock."
House surveyed the destruction with interest. Files were spilled all over the floor, crumpled and visibly trampled. The contents of all his drawers and cabinets were strewn everywhere. A glass paperweight lay smashed on the floor.
"Huh," he said after a moment.
Chase and Cameron were in the hall behind them, craning their necks to see the damage. They'd followed House and Wilson out of the conference room to the next door down the hall; House hadn't unlocked the connecting door between his office and the conference room yet. He heard Chase snicker softly, then whisper to Cameron, "I thought Foreman was working late yesterday."
"Ha ha," House said loudly, without turning to look at them. "Don't you two have hands to hold?"
"Not really," Chase said.
"Go find some."
They shuffled away like barely-chastised schoolchildren, still whispering, and Wilson shot House a sidelong glance and lowered his voice. "Someone went through all the clinic records as well. Is there anything you'd like to share with the rest of the class?"
"Yeah," House said, and jiggled the doorknob. "I need a new lock."
Wilson sighed. "The police want to talk to you. They're waiting in Cuddy's office. Try not to piss them off."
"Nonsense," House said briskly, turning on his heel and starting for the administrator's office. "Everyone likes me. I'm a people person."
"You keep saying that," Wilson said, in a passable Inigo Montoya accent. "I don't think it means what you think it means."
House opened his mouth for a snappy retort, but Wilson was already halfway down the hall in the other direction, hurrying towards the oncology department. He must have been waiting around Diagnostic Medicine all morning for House to show up so he could break the news in person. Typical.
The Princeton police turned out to be an older, heavyset woman with a stubborn jaw, and a younger man with closely-cropped dark hair. House greeted them with, "Can we do this quickly? Apparently I have an office to redecorate."
"Dr. House, I presume," the policewoman said, sticking out her hand. "You don't seem too concerned about this."
"On the contrary. That was my favorite paperweight."
"Doctor," Cuddy murmured from her seat on the sofa, in a voice of veiled steel.
The policewoman ignored him and said, "I'm Detective Schaeffer, this is Officer Lowell. Any idea what they might have been looking for?"
"Nope." House paused. "Are we done?"
Schaeffer gave him a weary look. "Sit down, Dr. House."
"I'd rather not."
He saw her eyes flick to his cane. The still-silent Lowell looked amused. He held a pad of paper in one hand, pen poised to take notes.
After a moment, she sighed and asked, "Is there anyone who might have it in for you? Anyone mad at you for some reason?"
Oh, honestly. Where to start?
Cuddy was obviously thinking along similar lines. She snorted. "You got a few hours?"
"Dr. Cuddy!" House exclaimed in mock-reproval.
"Oh, please," Cuddy said, her voice suddenly sharp. "You go out of your way to annoy people, and patients in particular. It's only a miracle something like this hasn't happened already. If your conduct has in any way brought trouble to this hospital, then you owe it to this institution and myself to own up to it."
"Nice," House said, impressed. "How long have you been waiting to say that?"
Cuddy's glare was like ice. "How long have you been working here?"
Schaeffer cleared her throat. She and Lowell were watching them, wide-eyed. "How about it, Doctor? Something we should know?"
House shrugged, fishing for a Vicodin to stall for time. He made a face as he swallowed, then said, "I can give you my patient list and you can start from there. Other than that--" He shot Cuddy a pointed look. "--no, I can't think of anyone in particular. I'm sure Dr. Cuddy would be happy to give you an earful, if that's what you want. Personally, I have actual work to do." A bald-faced lie, of course, but neither the police nor Cuddy had the ammunition to call him on it.
Lowell cleared his throat and said, "Whoever it was seemed to be concentrating on the medical records. Have you had any suspicious patients in the clinic lately?"
House shot him a hard look. The boy was too clever for his own good. "Suspicious patients? Well, let me think, there was one incredibly tan young man with a bomb strapped under his arm--"
"He's kidding," Cuddy muttered. She looked like she was getting a migraine.
"I love having an interpreter," House remarked to the room in general. "Do you come in pocket-size?"
Cuddy closed her eyes briefly. "Oh, go back to work already."
"But we're just getting started here! I'm sure Officer Lowell would love to hear about the mass murderer with the strategically-placed scar--"
"Excuse me, Detective," House said to Schaeffer. "Clearly my presence is no longer required. If you have any more questions, I'll be cleaning my office." He paused. "Well, no, I won't-- that's what minions are for. I'll just be holding the whip." He turned back to Cuddy. "Could I borrow your whip?"
Cuddy stood and strode across the office, holding the door open. "You're excused, Dr. House."
He mock-saluted and ambled out, resisting the urge to whistle. James had told him to behave, after all.
Back in the conference room, Chase was filling out a crossword puzzle and Cameron was-- surprise, surprise-- checking House's mail. Foreman was still absent. House just pointed at his office and said, "Get to work."
They obeyed with surprisingly little complaint, probably using the opportunity to gossip some more. House disapproved of gossip when he wasn't in on the joke, but he was feeling generous today; he'd let the kids have their little fun.
While they cleaned next door, he poured his own cup of coffee and sat down at the table, resting his leg on an empty chair. Then, after a quick look around, he slid the Knowles file from its hiding place in his briefcase.
He sipped his coffee as he studied the slim file, brow furrowing. Why on Earth would someone be interested in it? The information was scarce; he hadn't even drawn blood, which was beginning to seem like a serious oversight. But it had seemed so clear-cut...
House suppressed a sigh. Of course it had. That was his trope, after all-- the diseases that weren't quite as clear-cut as they appeared. So what was special about this one?
He flipped over the medical chart and stared at his own barely-legible handwritten notes on the back: Rich. Snotty. Recently in Mexico. Scared of husband. After a moment, he took a pen to the latter, crossing out of, and with a slow, heavy hand, wrote FOR.
There. That looked better.
House frowned at the patient's personal information, lightly tapping the line listing her address and home number. Knowles had been nervous but not paranoid. Odds were she hadn't given false information.
He stretched in his chair and reached behind him, groping for the telephone without looking, and was only mildly surprised when the receiver smacked into his hand.
"Wow," he said, staring at it. "That never actually worked before."
He heard Foreman sigh. "What are you doing now?"
"None of your business," House said, and waved vaguely at his office. "Go clean."
Foreman didn't budge. "Hire a maid service."
"I thought I just did."
Foreman made an impatient sound, and House took the opportunity to punch in Shirley Knowles's phone number. The phone rang-- two, three, four, and a man's voice: Knowles residence. Leave a message.
"A man after my own heart," House commented. He broke the connection and then hit redial.
"I don't want to know, do I?"
"Probably not." House glanced at him. "So where were you last night, Eric?"
"Not here," Foreman said immediately, "which is all you need to know."
House pressed a dramatic hand to his chest. "I'm hurt, Eric, I really am. Haven't you learned by now that I need to know everything?"
Answering machine. He tried again.
"You think you do know everything," Foreman was saying. "That's your problem."
"My only one? How optimistic of you." Three, four, and still the answering machine. Redial. "If I thought I knew everything, I wouldn't need to know anything. Unless you know something I don't." He paused. "Which isn't very likely. Outside the scope of jimmying locks or fencing stolen goods, of course, but really, who's counting? Then again, I think I just forgot what we were talking about, so unless you have as well, that's at least one up you've got on me. Care to go best out of three?"
Foreman looked dazed, and annoyed. Maybe a little confused. "Yeah. Uh, I'm gonna go pretend we never had this conversation."
"Excellent!" House said brightly. "That makes two of us. Now shoo."
Foreman swept out, and House sang softly to himself, "Vic-to-reee..."
Still no one was answering the phone. House considered leaving a very earnest and concerned message, then hung up instead. Human nature; she'd never get back to him, and then that would be the end of it.
Perhaps this was one medical mystery that might actually be better solved in person.
He recognized the address Knowles had given as one in a fairly upscale neighborhood on the outskirts of New York. House propped his chin on the end of his cane, thinking. His car had refused to start again that morning, and he'd had to take the bus to work. Perhaps he should have taken the hint and stayed in bed. The day had gone steadily downhill from there.
It would be too expensive to take a taxi, even if he could find a driver willing to take him that far; and he didn't feel like navigating public transportation again, especially not in the middle of the day. That left relying on the kindness of long-suffering best friends.
He called Wilson. "You're not actually doing anything today, are you?"
Wilson sounded harried. "I did have this crazy notion of getting some work done, yes. Why?"
"I need to go up to the city."
"Don't you have clinic duty today?"
House swore loudly and slammed down the phone.
This time it was Exam Room 1, and House took only two steps inside before he looked up, stopped, and broke into a wide, not-entirely-false grin.
"Heeey," he said brightly, drawing out the word. "I know you!"
The fake Mr. Knowles stood with his hands in his pockets, studying the medical diagrams on the wall. He turned towards the door with what House supposed was meant to be a threatening expression. "Doctor."
House glanced at the chart. He'd given his name as John Smith. Well, that was original.
"Don't tell me," he said, closing the door behind him. "Tummy-slash-brain trouble is catching, isn't it? I might have to rethink my original diagnosis."
Neither-Knowles-nor-Smith looked briefly disconcerted, then went back to threatening. It was a better look for him. "You shouldn't think about it at all, Dr. House," he growled, stalking forward. "Not if you want to stay--" his eyes dropped to House's leg-- "relatively healthy."
"Nice," House said. "Not bad for a cheap shot. Have you met my boss? You two would get along great."
"Where's the file, Dr. House?"
"Yeah, see, that's the funny part." House crumpled up the man's file and tossed it into the garbage. "I never would've looked twice at it if you hadn't been so damn interested. I believe that's what they call irony. Or maybe that's just what they think they call irony."
"Where is it?" the man repeated.
House opened his eyes very wide. "You mean you haven't found it yet? Darn it, I hate to think my paperweight was sacrificed for no reason."
Not-Knowles-or-Smith stepped very close, close enough for House to smell his breath. He sniffed. "You're diabetic. Take your insulin."
"You're playing a very dangerous game, Doctor," the man said softly.
House just stared at him. He was tall, but this man almost matched him in height. Something thin and insidious began to uncoil in his stomach. He supposed it was fear.
"I'm not the only one," he said finally, keeping his voice similarly low. "She didn't get sick in Mexico, did she?"
The man just blinked and smiled, a slow, humorless, reptilian smile.
House held his gaze. "The police were here earlier. They might even still be in the building. I'm sure they'd love to talk to you. The question is, can you get off hospital property before I reach the phone?"
"Don't pursue this," the man said. "That's a warning. You'd do well to listen."
House grinned. "Oh, come on. I'll give you a head start, whaddya say?"
The man just narrowed his eyes, then turned and walked out without a word, slamming the door behind him.
House waited a few moments more, taking deep breaths. He glanced down. His knuckles were white around his cane, and he deliberately eased his grip.
Then he threw the door open and stalked across the clinic to the pharmacy.
Wilson was there, filling out a prescription form for one of his patients. House greeted him with a mild, "I believe that man just threatened my life."
Wilson didn't look up. "Just a regular day of clinic duty for you, then?"
"Thirty-six Vicodin," House said to the man behind the counter. Thank God it wasn't that pharmacist.
Wilson sighed and laid down his pen. "Okay, seriously. What's going on?"
"Nuh-uh," House said immediately, as the pharmacist handed him his pills. "You don't play hooky with me, you don't get to join the secret club. No girls allowed."
"I'll try to live with the disappointment."
House dry-swallowed a pill. "What are you doing tonight?"
"Taking Julie to dinner. Why?"
"Is it your anniversary already? How time flies."
"I know," House said with a grimace. "The memory of that hellish night is seared into my brain. I get flashbacks every time I see a damn bouquet. So what's the occasion?"
"Face it," Wilson said, starting to walk away. "You're a chick magnet."
House followed. "And you are avoiding the question."
Wilson's lips quirked in an almost-smile. "Tell me what your thug wanted, and I'll tell you why we're going to dinner."
Like he needed to ask. "Marriage falling apart again?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
After a moment, Wilson said, "Did you want to do something? I can cancel--"
"Have you noticed," House said conversationally, "that your priorities are extremely fucked up? Not to put too fine a point on it."
"Was that a yes or a no?"
House thought about it. It was tempting, but...
"Nah," he said. "It'll keep. You go have dinner with your lovely wife."
Wilson looked bemused. "Gee, thanks."
House gave him a dismissive wave. Cuddy was advancing with a file folder in hand, and she did not look happy.
Christ. He'd just started. Four more hours of this.
He didn't tell her about not-John Smith, and if pressed, would probably even think of a good reason why not.
House was out the door as soon as the little hand hit four, fast enough that when Cuddy made some snide remark about the Special Olympics, he didn't even stop to retort. He just filed the remark away in the She'll pay for it later section of his brain-- a large, well-developed and frequently-exercised area-- and kept going.
The train took him to New York, and a taxi would take him back out again. House navigated the rush-hour crowds with a black glare and a brandished cane, and managed to steal a cab out from under a young mother with two squalling brats, a triumph which pleased him immensely.
It was almost 7:00 by the time the taxi pulled up in front of the Knowles' residence, by which time House was tired, hungry, in pain, and seriously regretting whatever embryonic humanitarian impulse had led him to decline Wilson's offer. Luckily, the cab driver was a prick, and by the time House vented his spleen and exited the car without tipping, he was already feeling more cheerful. A Vicodin only improved his state of mind some more, and, sufficiently braced for human contact, he slowly climbed the walkway to the front door.
The house was massive, with a nigh-criminal flight of brick stairs leading to the entrance. House eyed it balefully, but, buoyed by the Vicodin, he made it up the stairs with minimal cursing and rang the doorbell.
No answer. He tried the doorknob-- locked, of course.
"Well," House said to the front door, "shit."
He glanced back at the street-- the taxi was, of course, long gone, and no one else was in sight. This was why he always sent his minions to break into people's homes; that way he didn't have to learn to pick locks himself. In this particular case, however, criminal enterprise would sadly be unnecessary.
House checked under the doormat, in the large clay flowerpot, and finally found the key underneath a hideous cement statue of a frog.
Once inside, he knocked loudly against the inside of the door and called, "Hello! Anyone home?"
"I'm an evil burglar, come to steal all your nice things!"
This time, the silence was broken by a weak murmur of protest.
The sound came from upstairs-- Of course, House thought wearily, and gripped his cane tightly. Drugs, think of the drugs, forget the pain and focus on the drugs, and he climbed the stairs slowly, one agonizing step after another. The Vicodin was kicking in, but not nearly fast enough.
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally reached the second floor and slumped against the wall, breathing heavily. He caught his breath and was immediately assaulted by the stench of sickness.
His own pain forgotten, House hurried down the hallway, following his nose. A pair of double doors at the end of the hall opened into what he assumed was the master bedroom. The room was dark, illuminated only by the fading sunlight creeping in through the blinds; House turned on the light, then froze, his hand still on the switch.
The woman in the bed looked nothing like the one who'd been in the clinic only a week ago. This woman was pale, wasted, and covered in filth. Her breathing was shallow, her eyes looked glassy, and her nightgown was stained with blood.
House was across the room in an instant, checking her vitals. For a horrible moment he thought she was dead; but then she coughed weakly, blinked, and tried to focus on him.
"You," she croaked. Blood-streaked saliva trickled out of the corner of her mouth.
House ignored her. "How long have you been like this?"
"Day or..." She winced. "Two..."
"And it didn't occur to you to maybe call an ambulance?"
"Husband," Shirley Knowles began, and then she turned her head to the side and vomited blood.
"My sentiments exactly," House muttered. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed 911.
After explaining the situation and impressing on the operator the need to get an ambulance out immediately if she had any intention of keeping her job, House tucked the phone away and eyed his patient critically. She was going into shock, probably from blood loss. There wasn't much he could do until the ambulance arrived, but he could at least get her some water to wash the taste of blood away. He turned her head to the side first, so she wouldn't choke if she vomited again, then made his way to the connecting bathroom, filled up a paper cup with water. He was helping Shirley Knowles drink when he heard footsteps from the hallway, then an ominous click. And then:
"Put your hands up and turn around."
House closed his eyes briefly, then turned.
Alias-Smith-or-Knowles stood in the doorway, pointing a gun at him.
A metallic prick of fear at the back of his throat made House dizzy, but it didn't last long. The familiar rush of narcotics was spreading through his blood, overwhelming all his other emotions.
"Well," he said, "this has certainly been a bitch of a day."
The man was unmoved. "Step away from the bed and put the cane down."
House tightened his fingers around the handle of his cane and said, "I should warn you that I called the police. In fact--" He cocked his head, listening, and was rewarded by a far-off siren. "I do believe that's them right now."
"Wrong," the man said. "You called an ambulance."
House rolled his eyes. "Fine, yes, I called an ambulance, you found me out. It doesn't matter. Both police and ambulance make a marvelously loud noise that's sure to attract the attention of the neighbors. Both come equipped with large, strapping young men operating in an official capacity. Your clumsy attempts at subterfuge earlier obviously mean you don't want to attract undue attention. Shoot me, and, well-- the best-laid plans of idiots and half-wits, et cetera."
The man narrowed his eyes and raised the gun. His grip was steady. He was clearly comfortable holding the thing.
"I'm ready to make an exception," he said.
"Yeah," House said, staring at the gun. "I tend to bring that out in people."
"Put down the cane. Last warning."
The sirens were getting closer. House reluctantly leaned the cane against the wall, and felt ridiculously helpless once it was no longer in his hand. Ridiculous, because it wasn't like one cane more or less was going to have much effect in the face of a gun.
"Move towards me," the man said, and House took one painful, faltering step forward.
The man started to circle around him. "I'm taking her out of here."
"No," House said, "you're not."
"And you're gonna stop me?" He looked amused.
"This is my patient. Yes, I'm going to stop you."
The sound of the siren was now deafening. Red and white lights flashed through the blinds, and a moment later, brakes screeched to a halt and the front door banged open. "Hello?" a distant voice called.
"Upstairs!" House yelled back, not taking his eyes off the gun.
The man blinked. His grip on the gun faltered.
"Last chance," House said, with an unpleasant smile. "Shoot me and get the police involved, or leave now and keep up the charade. What's it gonna be?"
There was a long pause.
"This isn't over," the man said finally, and vanished back into the hallway.
House blinked. His pulse was racing. His hands trembled. He barely felt the pain in his leg.
What the hell was going on here?
When the paramedics burst into the room, he was back on familiar ground. They carried Shirley Knowles out the door and down the stairs, and he followed her into the back of the ambulance, into a world he knew like the back of his hand.
End Part 1
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